Minnesota opens its pheasant season Saturday with far fewer birds in the field than last year as a long-term decline in the state's ringneck population continues due to the loss of habitat in farm country.
The Department of Natural Resources estimates the state's pheasant population is down 26 percent from last year despite a mild winter and mostly favorable weather during the spring reproductive season. Here's a look at some issues for the upcoming season, which ends Jan. 1:
The DNR's population estimate, based on the agency's annual roadside survey in August, is not only down since last year, it's 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average. Wildlife managers blame the steady loss of undisturbed nesting cover since the mid-2000s.
The DNR says the key reason is that nearly 687,000 fewer acres than in 2007 are enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production and plant it with cover such as grass. That makes for fine wildlife habitat, and most of the lost acres were within the state's prime pheasant range in the southern half of Minnesota.
Farther to the west in the Dakotas, a favorite destination for many Minnesota pheasant hunters, ringneck numbers are down by nearly half in South Dakota and down nearly two-thirds in North Dakota because of the worst drought to hit the two states in recent decades.
The farm bill
Congress has begun discussions on what the next farm bill should look like, and the Conservation Reserve Program is always a priority for hunters. But conservation programs compete for the limited pool of money against much bigger items such as farm safety-net programs and food stamps.
Pheasants Forever is lobbying to raise the national cap for CRP from 24 million acres to 40 million acres. Enrollment peaked at nearly 37 million acres in 2007 when crop prices were relatively low, but declined as corn and soybean prices shot up and encouraged farmers to put that land back into production.
To save money, the 2014 farm bill lowered the cap from 32 million acres under the 2008 law to 24 million this year. Now that crop prices are down substantially from their highs, CRP supporters are pushing to raise the cap to between 30 million and 40 million acres.
At a hearing last week on Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey's nomination to be the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture in charge of conservation, some senators pressed for more CRP acres. Northey was noncommittal but said he looks forward to being part of the conversation as the next farm bill is developed.
Pheasants Forever says Minnesota's greatest ringneck densities are in and around Brown County, and a portion of Lincoln and Yellow Medicine counties. But the group says there are pockets of good habitat even in areas rated poor overall — hunters just have to get out and find them.
DNR Wildlife Section Chief Paul Telander writes that hunters who watch the corn and soybean harvests and look for tracks in snow will have a leg up on those who merely look at the gloomy headlines.
Minnesota's weekly crop progress report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates pheasants still have plenty of cover in farm fields. The state's soybean and corn harvests have been running behind the normal pace due to soggy field conditions.
The governor's opener
The southwestern city of Marshall is hosting the Governor's Pheasant Hunting Opener for the second time since Gov. Mark Dayton instituted the event seven years ago. Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith will lead the festivities, including a community banquet Friday night at Southwest Minnesota State University.
On Friday, Dayton and Smith will help the DNR and conservation groups dedicate the new, 155-acre James Meger Memorial Wildlife Management Area, about 22 miles northwest of Marshall. It's named for a late wildlife artist and Marshall area native who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for wildlife habitat and conservation groups across the Midwest through sales of his artwork.